This profile originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Time Out Shanghai.
ChaCha, the Guizhou-born MC who tears it up weekly at The Shelter, has been making international waves with her lush trip hop and reggae vocals – but she insists she’s really not that good. Jake Newby is unconvinced. Portrait Yang Xiaozhe
By most people’s standards, 2009 was a pretty good year for ChaCha, the Guizhou-born singer, MC, DJ and self-taught producer now based in Shanghai. She followed collaborations with a string of international artists including South Rakkas Crew, The Bug and Hermitude by featuring on the first of legendary UK label Hyperdub
's fifth anniversary releases, and getting airplay on BBC Radio One
. ‘It was cool,’ she nods, taking it all in, ‘but I’m not that good really. I still have a lot to learn.’
Such self-deprecation is typical of ChaCha (or Ye Hai Ya Han Xin Ge, to give her her full Man minority name). Though she likes to focus on her own Bjork-meets-Massive Attack trip hop productions, it’s her astonishing vocal skills which have brought her offers of work from the likes of top producers Clive Chin and Adrian Sherwood. She’s equally comfortable singing Sunday morning vocals a la Portishead or tough-girl MC’ing over bouncy reggae and dubstep, and even drum ’n’ bass. Head to her Douban page
to hear her Chinese version of reggae classic ‘No No No (You Don’t Love Me)’ or the stunning ‘Rock City’, where her breathy, lilting lyrics soar over sharply echoing MC’ing.
But while her music may have caused the kind of international stir which most local artists can only dream of, and her orange hair and MC’ing hint at a certain feistiness, in person she’s softly-spoken and uncomfortable being the centre of attention. Prior to our interview, she smiles nervously as the photographer directs her to look ‘like a star’. ‘I don’t know how to look that way,’ she laughs. Instead, she says: ‘I like being quiet and just listening to music. I’m not really a party girl – before I moved to Shanghai, I’d only ever been to a club five times.’ Even more surprising, she admits that when she arrived in the city in 2006 after a stint in Beijing as a university student, she ‘didn’t know what reggae, drum ‘n’ bass or trip hop was’, and that her only musical experience was singing rock covers in a high school band while she was in Guizhou.
She did know that she wanted to make music, though. By downloading programmes such as Fruity Loops and calling on a range of websites for help, she taught herself the basics of production. ‘My level isn’t very high,’ she says, ‘but it’s something I’m really interested in. I’ll always be a singer, but I definitely want to pursue production as well.’
And while her own music is distinctly trip hop, she has become an integral part of local reggae collective Uprooted Sunshine after coming across the genre at a One Love night at LOgO
in 2007. ‘I just remember walking in and asking a friend what the music was. I’d never heard anything like it. They asked if I knew who Bob Marley was and I had no idea.’ After becoming a regular at the night, she befriended those involved in the reggae and dub scene including DJ Drunk Monk and DJ Didje. With their encouragement (and spurred on by a few drinks), she eventually picked up the mic. ‘They liked what I did and I got free drinks so I carried on,’ she smiles. ‘I don’t consider myself an MC, though – I never know what to say. The first time, I just recited an ancient poem in Miao minority language, which I learnt back in Guizhou.’
Instead, ChaCha’s focus is on singing, production work and organising the monthly Karma Koma trip hop nights, though she has more high profile collaborations on the horizon. Typically though, she’s downplaying such projects. ‘I don’t really know much about who’s big or who’s really popular, I just know what I like. I’m just going to keep on concentrating on singing and see what happens.’